Monthly Archives: February 2007

Getting Started with Social Media

I’ve got a new post up today at Unica, highlighting some of the takeaways from my brainstorming session last week with a large company looking to engage in social media. There are so many ways to launch effective social media initiatives, that this is just a small sampling of ideas. But they’re framed in the context of some specific challenges that many large businesses face, so I hope that makes them a little more targetted and relevant.

I’m posting this morning from Lake Tahoe, where I took a few days hoping to get a little snowboarding in during what’s been a really bad year for snow in California. There’s been almost no snow all year. Until this weekend. It’s been a blizzard for two days. Three or four feet of snow. 40-mile an hour winds, gusting to 100 over the ridgetops. I got a half day in yesterday, and it felt like an expedition to Everest. I’m hoping it lets up today so I can get another day in before heading home.

One of my friends was watching me write the Unica post this morning, saying it sucks to have to write while you’re taking a day at the snow. But I see it the other way around. How cool is it to be able to work from the snow?

Customer Centricity and Social Media

I’m heading down for a brainstorming session this morning with a major company that I can’t talk about. We’re looking for ways in which a large and mature enterprise with a deeply engrained culture can embrace social media. They see competitors connecting with the market in ways that may shift business dynamics, and they’re highly motivated to close the gap. This is one of those engagements that make business worthwhile for me–sitting down with a group of smart people who are motivated to try something new. It will be a while before I can talk specifics, but I’m hoping even the generic insights that come out of the brainstorming session provide some fodder for practical dialog.

In the meantime, I’ve posted some new material at the Unica Marketing Consortium. The latest piece is on customer-centricity, and what it means in a market of networked customers, partners and suppliers.   

Social Media: One Dead Horse We Can All Flog

One feature that I’m finding I don’t particularly enjoy about social media is the disjointed way in which we bang our heads against the wall while failing to achieve much progress in shaping knowledge. One pod of pundits has an interesting discussion about the definition of social media, and some sort to consensus is reached, even if tacit detente. A few weeks later, a different pundit pod has the same discussion, and either the same or a different consensus is reached. Rinse, lather and repeat. At some point, someone links one or more of the pundit pods by a comment, and the whole discussion begins again, with an exponentially declining rate of return of intelligent new insights. It feels like we’re just reinventing academia, but without all the research.

Personally, I feel the discussion over the meaning of social media is important. This is a major milestone in a transformation that has been going on for a very, very long time, and it impacts almost every facet of our society and institutions. Some pundits are sagely discussing the roots of social media in early BBS systems and forums. Is the fad really that old? When my father was an editor for the New York Times, they used to talk about the incredible democratizing revolution of the IBM Selectric Typewriter. Then it was the Wang Word Processor. Then it was Desktop Publishing. And the thread goes back the other way in history to the printing press and before that the advent of velum. This is about how we codify, transmit, archive, shape, share and investigate knowledge. What’s happening now is big. Not bigger than the printing press, but bigger than Wang. Big enough to take seriously.

But when we use the medium to discuss and define the medium the growing pains become obvious. And they really suck. While we’re busily tearing down many of the fundamental aspects of our current knowledge industry–like centralized voices, authority, experts–the chaos of punditocracy makes me feel a little nostalgic. Let’s face it, some bloggers are incredibly insightful on some topics, not on others. Some are eerily omniscent. Others are total hacks. It’s a mixed bag. But with the magic of social media, everyone’s opinion is equal–or at least, as equal as your traffic, which may be directly or inversely proportionate to your actual knowledge on a given topic, but is always aligned with popularity. Or, notoriety. Or, well, the number of links that separate you from someone really popular.

In my profession, Phillip Kotler is the epitome of the establishment. His defining textbook on marketing has sold more copies than McDonald hamburgers. There’s a secretive but growing sect of marketers who assert that every word in Marketing Principles is in fact literally true. I can see why people would want to tear that house down. It’s timeless. I mean, it doesn’t change. By the time I tackled that beast of a book–it was the middle of the dotcom boom–there was no signature Kotler dissection of Brand, or Metrics, or Technology. It was still the four P’s. Important, but not sufficient.

But. At least it was a stake in the ground that we could reference as a starting point, to track with, or to veer away from in a new direction. Today, we have what? Wikipedia? Have you read the wikipedia entry on Marketing? It’s like a collaborative high school project for Intro to Business–an elective for those who didn’t want to take Spanish. I get the concept of Wikipedia, and it’s great. Really. But professional editors provide a real value to those of us who rely on accurate reference information. The problem with Wikipedia is that there’s no indication, and no accountability, for the reliability of an entry. One entry on the history of the Turbine engine may have been written by the guy who actually invented the thing. But when you get to the entry on marketing, it was probably written by three of your interns. And there’s no way to know the difference, unless you’re already well educated about what you’re reading. We can all hate those Encyclopedia Brittanicas, but you know when that behemoth goes to print there’s been a long process of vetting entries. What is the equivalent on the Web?

And this, really, is the crux of the challenge that defines the next big hurdle in social media. With Wikipedia. With Google. With bloggers and social media. If you already know something about what you’re searching for, or reading–or if you generally don’t care about details like accuracy–you’re in pretty good shape to dive right in, and with a little work you can find a whole lot of value. But if you don’t have a foundation to work from, you can really be hung out to dry. What do you believe? Who says? Who’s right? Do you trust Wikipedia, or the top-ranked site on Google? Here’s a juicy little factoid running in library circles after a recent survey: do you know how teenagers determine whether or not something is true? If they can find it written the same way twice on the Web, it’s true. Truth is equal to consistency. Take that, democratized content. RSS is now God.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to stop the merry-go-round and get off. This is a tremendous thing that’s happening, and it’s exciting and rich and full of ideas and energy–if you can muddle through all the noise. I guess I just thought if we were smart enough to create these tools, we would be smart enough to use them in smart ways. At least we should be smarter than that centralized knowledge industry we’re working so hard to pull down. But what I see in my own experience is that we’re not any smarter. We just have newer tools. We play the same games that pissed us off when others played them. We make the same mistakes. We create the same cliques and echo chambers, we relish the same power when we win it, and we weild that power when we can. But we have one big drawback compared to our centroid forebears that makes us dumberer: hubris. We don’t yet grasp the power, or the shortcomings, of the tools we’ve created.

The very real shortcoming that I see us stalled at today for all our tool-making prowess, is the ability to distill knowledge out of all the information we’re generating. Great, so you got 20 comments on your last blog post. What kernal of wisdom can you pull from those posts that will stand the test of time? What form will it take so that others can benefit from and build on that wisdom? And don’t preach to me about search engines making everything accessible. A needle is accessible in a haystack if you know what you’re looking for and have the patience of a saint to find it.

For all the power social media has to democratize information and the shaping of knowledge, it’s useless for anything more than entertainment if we’re not able to actually shape any knowledge anyone can agree on. I know we’re all waiting with bated breath for another YouTube, or an iTunes killer, but I what I’m really dreaming of is a dynamic distiller that can help me trawl through the information on my site to distill and categorize kernals of knowledge. I don’t want to tag it, or bookmark it, or Digg it. I want to distill the data so people don’t have to trawl through the scrap heap looking for something worthwhile. When data is distilled on my site, maybe it can be shared and distilled across related sites too. Then maybe instead of each pundit pod reinventing the same dialog, we can argue over which distillation packs the biggest punch.

The alternative of course is to keep nursing our egos and leveraging our linkbait. But without eventually inventing ways within social media to distill the dialog, we’ll turn content democratization into knowledge atomization–a world in which whatever you believe is true and no one can prove you wrong. Oh wait, was that why we wanted to get rid of experts and authorities in the first place?

The Role of Business in a Market Community

I’ve finally posted something I’ve been thinking about for a long, long time. A lot of people are talking about the impact of social media on business, and how it forces businesses to play a role as a member of a market community, rather than simply trying to build a fawning circle of customers. The effectiveness of one-way, broadcast communications is changed dramatically in a world where customers have the ability to dialog and compare what you say with what you do. But I’ve been interested in how this actually fits within the historical context of business evolution over centuries. I finally put my thoughts and research down in this post at Unica’s Marketing Consortium. I’m interested in hearing your ideas and feedback. Check it out and weigh in.

The New Rules of Customer Engagement

I’ve got a new post up at Unica’s Marketing Consortium blog, looking in practical terms at the drive towards customer engagement. I’m battling the flu this week, so one post is about all I can intelligently muster today. As it is, one post took me a couple of hours to muddle through what usually just takes a few minutes. I hope to be clear-headed tomorrow. Cheers.

Socializing the SuperBowl

I posted a piece on social media and the SuperBowl today on Unica’s Marketing Consortium blog. There were a couple of really good ads produced by fans and consumers, and aired along with those from big league agencies during the game. The quotes around the Internet from ad agency executives and marketing pundits were not dismissive of the ads by any stretch, but their comments do reveal an ivory tower mentality–and in some cases, a fear of being shown up by ordinary people toting cameras creatively. In fact, there’s a very long history of contempt for the unwashed masses on Madison Avenue–ad execs used to famously refer to housewives as "sitting ducks"–that is covered in books like The Image Makers. The book is now out of print, but available used, and gives a fascinated window onto advertising from it’s point in history in the 1980s–a viewpoint that becomes quite poignant when you look at the comments by advertising execs regarding social media. Check it out and let me know if you agree.

A Group of Empowered Individuals

Stowe Boyd has a lot of interesting things to say about Social Media. He has one of the strongest–and loudest–voices on the web framing the way social media is understood, and if you’re not reading his blog you should. Most of the time, I agree with him, like when he says:

The power has shifted from the center to the edge, from the organization/group to the individual… And the centroids will have to realize that something profound has happened, over here, out at the edge, where the social applications are being invented.

Concise and accurate. When he’s describing the unfolding of significant trends, I think he sees the forest for the trees better than most. But when he’s peering into the future, or stumping for a frame that he likes, I think he can go off the rails.

In his last post, Boyd muses on Chris Shipley’s opening comments at Demo, where Shipley talks about the "Empowered Individual"– people who are leveraging their purchasing power to make greater demands for performance, ease of use and reliability. Shipley’s point is that even in the enterprise, where purchasing decisions are far more opaque than in consumer markets, the end users are driving decisions by "demanding better support, quicker response times, more reliable systems, all while fully addressing their specific business needs and their specific business styles."

Boyd agrees with the notion that it’s all about the individual, but doesn’t like "Empowered Individual". I agree, it’s clunky. But Boyd’s favored term is an indication of where I think he goes off the rails. Boyd is pushing for the term "Me First", as a way to concisely define the true nature of individual power. He gives some background on this idea in an insightful post about the diference between collaboration in the ’90s and today:

The basic model of 90’s era collaboration, a la Lotus Notes, is all about the group. Information was managed in group-based repositories, then passed around for review, or published to intranet portals via customized apps. Information era workflows where people are first and foremost occupiers of roles, not individuals, and the materials being created are more closely aligned with groups than individuals.

Web 2.0 social tools — largely — work around a different model. Social networks — explicit ones like MySpace and Facebook, or implicit ones in social media — are really organized around individuals and their networked self-expression. I am writing this blog post, and publishing it, personally. It is not the product of some workgroup. It is not an anonymous chunk of text on a corporate portal. My Facebook profile pulls traffic from my network of contacts, sources I find interesting, and the chance presence updates of my friends.

I don’t need to participate in groups to exist or to share — or to matter — in this world. 

That’s an interesting comment, considering the fact that he’s not writing in a paper notebook, but on a public blog with an RSS feed to distribute his ideas to a broad audience. But then, Boyd hates the idea of "audience", because to him it symbolizes the entrenched and predatory outlook of traditional media moguls, who long ago forgot that their audience is made of up real, live people.

Hayes and his ilk are unwilling to accept the notion that individuals are smart enought to know what’s important to them. Mass market media believes the individual is defined in terms of membership in an audience, an audience whose characteristics, wants and needs are defined by the media. And individuals have become canny enough to know that organizations like the London Times may not always have our best interests at heart, no matter how much they spew the dogma of impartial journalism, or wrap themselves in national or philosophical banners.

While I certainly agree with his sentiments about big media and their refined contempt for consumers, I don’t know why that naturally impugns the concept of "audience". I mean, audience also applies to a musician in a coffehouse, or a play on a stage, or a passionate blogger–it describes an important relationship of community as old as human history itself, and it does not inherently discount the value of the participants in that relationship.

Anyone who has written an email or a comment on a public blog or bulletin board knows the difference between writing in public, and writing in a notebook. At some point you begin to conceptualize the reader as you write, and it changes what you write. Sometimes that’s good, sometimes that’s bad–especialy when the intent is to decieve or manipulate–but it is inevitable. It is the function of the desire to communicate ideas so that others may understand what you mean. It’s often called finding a voice. And the readers on the other end also at some point conceive of themselves, even if only in very vague ways, as part of a group. When I read the Wall Street Journal, or Boyd’s Blog, even if I’m doing it in total privacy, at some level I know by virtue of public access to the forum that others are also reading it, and that therefore I share some common experience with others, even unseen others. Beyond the interest and utility of participation, whatever it says to you that you are A Reader of the Wall Street Journal, or A Watcher of American Idol, is a function of your perception of the group, and again, it’s inevitable. It’s what media and marketing feeds on to sell you more products. But media and marketing didn’t invent this, they just figured out how to exploit the hell out of it to profit. And now that we are growing wise as consumers, knocking down exploitive marketing and media is good, but it doesn’t eliminate the dynamics of social communication, and it doesn’t eliminate the reality of audience.

Bringing it back around to Boyd’s formulation of "Me First". There is no question in my mind that Boyd is spot on when he says "The power has shifted from the center to the edge, from the organization/group to the individual." And I think he’s right to throw big rocks at the centroids on behalf of the edglings. But I don’t think groups and audiences have been annhilated. The beauty of a group and of an audience is its power to change the participants, both the speakers and the listeners–and often much of the change happens in the preparation of the individual to expose his or her ideas to an audience. If you make the group nothing more than a collection of individuals, there is no conversation.

"Me First" in my mind, discounts the value of the group, in the same way that controlling centroids discount the value of the individual. It’s a swinging of the pendulum a few points too far.